Shakespeare in the Park, a free summer production produced by New York’s Public Theater, had never skipped a season in its sixty plus year history until COVID-19 shut down the world in 2020. So when the annual signpost of summer, held at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, returned after a yearlong hiatus earlier this year, New Yorkers rejoiced. The reopening was a milestone not just for the city and the theater community, but for civilization at large, which is in part why filmmaker Rudy Valdez (“The Sentence”) documented the triumphant return.
The result is Valdez’s “Reopening Night” premiering on HBO on Dec. 20. The documentary chronicles The Public’s 12-week journey to navigate an obstacle-filled path to the opening night of Shakespeare in the Park’s “Merry Wives” in August 2021. Set in a South Harlem community of West African immigrants, the play is an adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Featuring an all-Black cast, the production, directed by Saheem Ali, served not only as a celebration of the return to in-person life, but also as a bold embrace of Black joy following the national reckoning over equity and racial justice that was sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
With behind-the-scenes access to the creative process, Valdez captured intimate cast rehearsals, design team construction and COVID-19 induced production setbacks while also taking an honest look at the Black experience in theater.
Here, Valdez, who also served as the lead D.P. on “Opening Night,” talks with Variety about the origins of the project, making a feature documentary in less than five months and gaining subjects’ trust while wearing a mask.
How did this project come to fruition?
Executive producers Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz had been talking with The Public for at least a couple of years about possibly doing a documentary about Shakespeare in the Park. They did a lot of groundwork and built trust. So, when it looked like “Merry Wives” was going to happen, it seemed like the perfect time to make the film.
How did you come on?
Matthew and Perri reached out to me because I’ve had some experience with The Public and I have a lot of theater experience in my background. Also, the style of which the film was going to have to be made was tailor made for the way that I make films – with a very small crew and very intimately. When they reached out and said we have this project and it has to do with The Public Theater, I said yes before they finished their sentence.
What is your past experience with The Public?
I used to produce a show called “Find The Funny,” which was a variety standup show at Joe’s Pub (a performing space in The Public Theater) for six or seven years. I was basically a producer who helped put together the show, so I had spent a lot of time at The Public Theater.
Opening night of “Merry Wives” was on August 9. When did you begin filming?
This whole project happened very quickly. Our first shoot day was the first day of rehearsal in May 2021. From the first shoot day to the delivery of the film all happened in under five months. It was fast and furious, but amazing.
That’s an incredibly short amount of time to complete a feature-length documentary. What was that like?
What’s interesting about doing a project like this, where you have this opening date that you’re leading towards, is that you have to think about the story and what that opening night really means. To me, it’s like, yes, of course this beautiful show was going up, but when the audience sees that footage of the show, I wanted them to think of the cast and the people behind the scenes and all of the work they put into putting this production together. I wanted it to feel like the audience took this journey with them and I wanted them to be invested in these people.
You filmed the cast rehearsing as well as individually at their homes. How did you gain their trust in such a short amount of time?
Normally during the beginning process of a documentary, especially a verité documentary like this one, the initial work of the filmmaker is building trust and breaking down those barriers. One thing that was a hindrance for me during this project was wearing a mask. One of the things that I’ve realized about myself is that I have — I don’t know how to put it without sounding egotistical — a kind face. A trusting face. It’s one of my tools when I am connecting with people. You always know what you’re getting when you talk to me. You know who I am and what I’m about and why I’m in the room. So, at the beginning of this project I realized, ‘Wow. I’m going to really have to work because they’re just looking at my crazy eyes.’
Did you know from the outset that the subjects of race and racism would be a big part of this docu?
We were there to make this film for a couple of reasons. One was Shakespeare in the Park and the making of “Merry Wives.” It’s a topic that would be fascinating in any year, but we were heightened by the fact that The Public had taken a year off because of the pandemic and this was going to be the first show back. But along with COVID, George Floyd happened, and this racial reckoning was happening in our country and this show was also a response to that. I didn’t want to go in with any preconceived notion about what that meant and how I was going to try and tell that story, because it’s not for me to dictate. But we went in and it was immediately on the front of everybody’s mind.
Do you consider this film a COVID documentary?
It certainly captures a timeframe that encompasses COVID, but I think at the same time, it’s evergreen because it is about standing back up. It is about courage. It’s about voice and it’s about agency. It just happens to be taking place at a point when we thought we were coming out of a pandemic.
“Reopening Night” premieres Dec. 20 on HBO.